The South China Sea disputes are commonly regarded as intractable but this paper will argue that they could be resolved through critical examination of historical evidence. The paper will also propose a methodology for doing so. Tackling the territorial disputes between the various claimant states will facilitate solutions to the sea’s various maritime disputes. Since these have the potential to bring the United States and China into catastrophic conflict, resolving them – as opposed to maintaining them through various acts of deterrence – would be a significant contribution to peace and stability in East and Southeast Asia. Territorial claims to uninhabited features require evidence of occupation and administration. Among the claimant states around the South China Sea, China has been the most vocal in asserting historical evidence followed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Brunei has been almost silent. None of them, however, has been willing to see their evidence tested in an international hearing. Instead, they have asserted national claims through government statements and publications while unofficial advocates (most often academics or journalists) have amplified them through articles and interviews. History has been wielded as a weapon. The effect has been to construct rival senses of historical entitlement among the populations of the claimant states. This has heightened feelings of nationalism and xenophobia around the region and caused protests and occasional violence. These ‘emotional claims’ to maritime features have the power to disrupt relations between states and threaten governments with domestic insurrection. In recent years, new evidence has emerged from formerly closed archives that cast doubt on these nationalistic claims. This evidence has revealed that the history of occupation and administration of the various reefs and rocks in the South China Sea has been partial and episodic. This opens the prospect of a way to resolve the disputes. Until now the three main claimants have made broad claims to entire archipelagos: China and Vietnam both claim the whole of the Paracels and Spratlys. The Philippines claim a subset of the Spratlys that it calls ‘Kalayaan’ plus Scarborough Shoal. However, the available evidence shows that each state has only ever occupied a few features within these island groups and did so only episodically, until relatively recently. This evidence provides a basis for a compromise solution to the disputes. Since no state has ever occupied or administered all the features, they cannot claim exclusive rights to them. Instead they should be asked to provide evidence in support of their claims to specific above-water features. This should not be hard to do, since all the occupations date from the 20th century. The result should be a patchwork of claims providing grounds for compromise between the claimants. Recognition that no state has a monopoly on legitimacy should be a major step towards conflict reduction.
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